Deciding How Many (And Which) Colleges To Apply To

School Selection

The college application season is upon us which means concerned high schoolers everywhere are grappling with questions like:

  • How many schools should I apply to?
  • What types of schools should I apply to?
  • How can I create the perfect list of target schools?

Deciding on where you want to spend the next four years of your life can be overwhelming. We totally get that. So we’re going to try to pick these questions off one by one the best we can. And since we’ve got to start somewhere, let’s start with that last question:

How Can I Create The Perfect List Of Target Schools?

The short answer to that question is, perfection is unachievable. You can absolutely create a fantastic list of target schools, but there’s no such thing as a “perfect” list. There are just way too many schools out there, including outstanding ones that you’ve never even heard of (and thus won’t end up considering, for better or worse). So, knowing that you’ll never have ALL the information in the world, the trick is simply to start by compiling a list of places that you:

  1. Have heard of.
  2. Have researched.
  3. Would like to go to if you were accepted.

The truth is, just compiling that basic list of schools is a tough task for lots of college applicants. Why? Because it’s easy to fall into the trap of tinkering with the list for hours on end. One minute you find yourself with 30 schools; the next, you’ve got eight, and you’re suddenly panicking because you might have left out all the “good ones!” Which leads us to our next point…

Too Much Tinkering With Your List Of Schools Is Counterproductive

There’s a point where messing around with your master list becomes counterproductive, and you actually start taking away valuable time from meaningful application work. Worst of all, this kind of second-guessing can drive you insane. Our advice is to try to avoid that scenario all together.

More > > > How To Avoid Freaking Out While Applying To College

At some point, you need to make an executive decision…

“Here are all the schools that I’m going to apply to! I’m happy with my choices! Now, I’m going to dominate these applications!”

We suggest standing on a chair and declaring these bold statements proudly if that helps. Now, take a step down off the chair (carefully!) Get ready to hear something that’s going to sound extremely contradictory to all that… This list of schools doesn’t need to be 100% final…

Allow Yourself Some Flexibility Because, Well, Life Happens

Yes, we just told you to make an executive decision about the schools on your target list and move on, but you also need to allow for some wiggle room because things can and do change. After all, it’s an application process. Here’s an example:

You might discover that once you dig into University of Chicago’s application, you find their historically provocative essay topics to be irritating—“What is square one, and can you actually go back to it? Huh?”—leading you to decide that you don’t have much to say about any of them. That’s okay. If you’re feeling overwhelmingly negative towards a certain application, go ahead and drop it. It’s not the end of the world.

On the flipside, leave the door slightly open for new possibilities. Let’s say you’ve got a debate tournament being held on Amherst’s campus in October. Even though you hadn’t even considered it as an option, your visit is enchanting. The students seem intelligent and down-to-earth, and that New England countryside is just breathtaking! Go ahead and add it to your list—for regular decision, of course, since suddenly deciding to create an early application in October would be crazy-sauce.

Be Open, But Be Realistic

While you should of course be open to new options, the majority of your list you decide on must remain firm from until your applications are complete. For those of you applying early somewhere — whether it’s Early Decision or Early Action — that’s obviously a school choice that needs to be solidly set at this point.

Also, a quick word to you early application folks: for the love of all that’s holy in this world, do NOT wait until you get that first decision to work on your other applications. That’ll leave you with only two weeks to finish everything else, and you might as well buy yourself a one-way ticket to Meltdown City.

Finally, and perhaps most practically, bookmark to help with your Common Application. Total time saver. Now that that’s settled, let’s look at the next question:

How Many Schools Should I Apply To?

This is definitely one of the questions we get asked most here at Admissionado. Students (and their parents) want to know if there’s an optimal number of schools to have on their list. Obviously the goal is to devote enough time to each application to maximize an applicant’s chances of gaining admission to as many of the schools as possible.

More quality applications = more choices!

Here’s the problem: there’s no magic number for amount of time spent that works for every applicant. This is because everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to application workload. And that doesn’t mean that someone who can handle more applications is better off than someone who’s more comfortable with less.

Beware Of Diminishing Returns

There are major considerations when taking on too many applications, such as diminishing returns (your overall product suffers after you exceed a certain threshold of work) and total application burnout. If you ask Admissionado staffers how many applications we completed back in the day, you’ll see that our numbers vary widely. One of the contributors to this blog post created 10 applications total, and another applied to over 20 schools, and yet another applied to just… one.

Even though the precise number is different for everyone, here are a few tips to get you closer to figuring out what’s actually right for you.

When In Doubt, Shoot For 8-12 Schools

Generally speaking, the sweet spot for most applicants is somewhere between 8 to 12 schools. It’s the number range we see most often, and the majority of clients ultimately feel most comfortable here. The division typically goes something like this:

  • 2-4 reach schools
  • 3-4 match/mid-level schools
  • 2-4 safety schools

And this brings us to the intersection of “how many schools” and “what type of schools” students should apply to.

Reach schools are the long-shots, the real tough ones with the odds stacked against you. They’re not impossible to get into by any means, but it’s going to be quite a challenge. The mid-levels (or match schools as they’re sometimes called) are the ones that you’re moderately certain you’ll gain acceptance to. The safety schools are the ones that you’re nearly positive you’ll get accepted to based on factors like:

  • The school’s average GPA.
  • The school’s average ACT/SAT score of admitted students.
  • The school’s overall admission rates.

However, keep in mind that nothing is a sure thing. You still have to create a great application with standout essays. Without that, there’s no such thing as a safety school.

Can I Apply To More Than 8-12 Schools?

Now that we’ve got our baseline, many of you are still asking, “Can I apply to more than 8-12 schools?” First off, let’s clear one thing up… no student MUST apply to more than 8-12 schools, but of course you can if you choose to and (more importantly) are able to do so without overwhelming yourself.

If you’ve done your research, you will have no problem whittling your choices down to a solid list of 8-12, all of which are schools you would be more than happy to attend. We find that the people who are building target lists that consist of more than 12 schools are usually doing so out of worry, and that’s totally fine. As long as you can devote a good amount of time to each application and you don’t end up watering anything down, we say go for it. More power to you!

Just keep in mind that applying to more schools doesn’t increase your chances of getting accepted to any one of those schools in particular. For example, UC Berkeley doesn’t care if you’re applying to one school or 100; they’re going to evaluate your application on their terms regardless of your other school choices. The same goes for every top university and liberal arts college. That being said, if you can apply to UC Berkeley along with 15 other schools without sacrificing the quality of your apps, go for it. If you can’t do so without turning out subpar apps, it’s probably not a good use of your time.

Another piece to the “how many schools?” puzzle comes in the form of Ivy League applications. Often times applicants ask us:

  • How many Ivies should I apply to?  
  • Does it increase or decrease my chances if I apply to all of them?

The simple answer is this: You should apply to as many Ivy League schools as you want to, and applying to all of them neither increases nor decreases your chances of getting accepted (aside from the diminishing returns factor we just discussed, of course).  

More > > > What Factors Distinguish One School From Another?

The Ivies Are Reach Schools

The important point that you should know about including any Ivy League school on your target list is that the Ivies should technically be considered reach schools for everyone. It doesn’t matter how incredibly gifted you are, your admission to any one of them, be it Harvard, Brown, or Yale is simply not guaranteed.

That’s just the brutal nature of today’s super-competitive landscape. However, there are ways to increase your chances. First, select schools (not just Ivies) that you would really love to attend, and translate this passion into your applications. Second, make sure you have plenty of time to devote to each separate application.

Applying to eight Ivies—all reaches with difficult applications—might not be the most practical way to spend your time. Finally, create applications that showcase you as a three-dimensional candidate with a unique point of view who will add tremendous value to any university community.

More > > > Mind Over Matter: 3 Ways To Conquer College Acceptance Rates

Disregard This Myth When Applying To Multiple Ivy League Schools

A lot of conspiracy theorists out there think that Ivy League admissions committees (we call them adcoms) share information about applicants, picking and choosing amongst students, deciding who gets in where. This simply isn’t true. It’s actually illegal, and these folks don’t have enough time to do that anyway—Harvard alone deals with 35,000 applications in a matter of weeks! They care about the 2,000 students they want to admit, and that’s it.

It’s just not practical to think that they’re turning to the other schools and saying things like, “Hey, Princeton… we’ll trade you Louis Winthorpe for Pricilla Valentine,” or, “Hey, Yale… we’re not going to accept Marty McFly and you shouldn’t either. The boy has the gall to apply to both Harvard and Yale?! The nerve!”

The Most Important Thing Is A Balanced Strategy

We’ve touched on not wasting time creating the “perfect” target school list, what to keep in mind when you’re considering how many schools you should apply to, as well as the Ivy League factor. Now, let’s look at putting together a game plan.

A winning hand will be the perfect mix of mid-level, safety and reach schools. Basically, 3-4 schools from each category. Why? Well, as any good gambler will tell you, you’ve got to hedge your bets. Having a range of schools on your list will help you set ambitious goals while giving yourself back-up options. Fair and true, but it also forces you to do three very important things.

1) Know Your Cards: Picking your reach and safety schools forces you to evaluate your own profile and think like an admissions committee. Examine your strengths and weaknesses. Find the gaps in your application and do what you can to fill them. It’s one of the best ways to really get to know yourself and choose the right schools.

More > > > What Makes Strong College Candidates? [Brainstorming Exercise]

2) Know Who You’re Playing Against: In order to categorize schools into match, safety, and reach, you’ve got to do your homework. Too often, students will create lists based on what they think they know, without actually going into school admissions profiles. You need to know what your school is looking for and how you compare to the other applicants.

3) Put On Your Pokerface: The college application process is a grueling, stressful time. Having a balanced school list will keep you sane. Applying to safety schools will calm you with the reassurance that at least you’ll get in SOMEwhere and not be stuck at home. Applying to reach schools will give you the satisfaction of having given it your best shot.

Know yourself, know your schools, and keep calm. That’s the best advice anyone can give about applying to college, and making a strategic and balanced school list is a great step towards acceptance. So don’t stress too much over creating that “perfect” list. Do your research, pick out your schools and get just get started, which is usually the hardest part of anything.

For more info on the school selection process, check out our CEO’s recent interview with Her Campus.

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